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On Being Fully Alive

Another Diane Ackerman book made its way into my life yesterday. A friend, who was cleaning house and wanted to get rid of a load of books, handed me a copy of On Extended Wings, a twenty-year-old description of the author’s experiences in learning to fly. My friend thought I might be interested because of my interest in airplanes. She had no idea that my passion for Diane Ackerman far exceeds my passion for flight.

  At the moment I’m more than a dozen chapters into the book, and I had to set it aside just now to think about being fully alive, as that woman certainly is. I envy her sensitivity to the sensory world. She notices things, and feels the impact of them on her soul. Most importantly to me, she is able to express all those feelings in her writing, whether she is describing a fledgling bird’s first attempts to leave the nest or the physics of an exploding nova many light years away. Her passionate relationship with life and all its contents reminds me how narrow and dry my own world seems sometimes. Her intense curiosity leads her to explore everything she encounters, with a razor-sharp intellect that peers deeply into the meaning of everything. And to her, everything has meaning.

  Learning to fly was not easy for her, not because she couldn’t learn the skills and the mind-set required, but because in the environment of a small airplane freed from its natural resting place on the ground, control is everything. A moment’s inattention or confusion about what to do to keep the aircraft where it is in the sky can result in sudden disaster. Flying a small plane is not difficult, no more than driving a car. The difference is that one cannot simply pull over to the side of the road and think about the process. An airplane has brakes, but they are only useful when taxiing slowly on the ground, not when flying at eighty miles an hour five hundred feet above the earth. It’s easy and common for new fliers to get rattled to the point of freezing at the controls, to be suddenly unable to function or to think of what they are doing.

  At one point in the book, Ackerman has just taken her instructor aside after a lesson and explained to him how she responds to his military-style teaching. To him, sharp criticism and angry-sounding instructions get the attention of students, sharpening their instincts and making them remember. To her, his style simply cowed her, beating her down and convincing her that she was incompetent to learn what had to be learned. He, of course, was shocked to hear that his teaching style had the opposite effect to what he had come to expect. Having gone through flight training myself, I could fully sympathize with her upset. Learning to fly takes a lot of different habits than what we are accustomed to. The only way to learn them is to do them—correctly and incorrectly—many times. The problem is that “incorrect” at a crucial moment can cause death. That’s a little further up the significance scale from a dented fender.

  But of course Diane Ackerman would feel an instructor’s wrath more keenly than many people. She feels everything more keenly.

  How many people would—or could—gently pluck a baby robin from its nest and help it take its first flights, after watching its parents futilely attempting to coax it out? How many people would suddenly grasp a larger connection between flying and death:

  “Hold the thought of sunlight in your mind, the sunlight that drips hallucination from rime ice in the winter, the sunlight that makes a six-foot barracuda at dockside, lolling in a voracious slant, look like a gleaming nail driven into the water, the sunlight that feels peppery on bare leg, the sunlight that makes rainbow sun dogs between the high clouds as you fly away from Richmond Airport, saying to Departure Control what you cannot yet say without a poignancy so vivid your eyes begin to tear: ‘Departure, I am with you. . . . Departure, changing frequency for a moment. . . . Departure, I am back with you again.’ Departure, we are always with you. We are born with you, we carry you in our cells. We choose to forget that, or there would be no dealing with the UPS man or sorting out the laundry or falling in love. In our twenties, we feel immortal; life is all in front of us, like a runway. But by our early thirties that changes, and Departure is with us; we are aware that we have been on its radar all along, a small, silent light moving slowly toward the edge of being.”

  All my life I’ve dreamed of flying. It has seemed to my imagination as the ultimate experience, the most alive I could ever be. I’ve been up in small planes many times, savoring the views and the physical sensations of flight. What occurs to me as I read her book is that to Diane Ackerman flying is simply one of the ways she experiences being fully alive. In the five or six other books of hers that I’ve read, she illuminates the discernable universe with vivid description that continually reminds me what I am missing.

  She acknowledges being different from most people. As she records the stress of learning to fly, she recounts being lectured by her flight instructor:

  “’Turn or don’t turn,’ Brad says, ‘but decide. To do both at once will get you killed!’ Learn to let go, if letting go is what you want. If it isn’t really what you want, then don’t let go. But don’t pretend to be doing one only to sabotage it with the other.”

  And then she expands the idea into something more, something bigger in her life.

  “Don’t delude yourself, for instance, that you’re living on the edge, a card-carrying voluptuary, a nonstop celebrant of fascinations and variety, a rapturous explorer of life—if what you want is the emotional safety net of a home, the reliable love of one man, your feet on the ground. To do nothing is also to act, because the forces of society work so hard to drag you down to the easiest common denominator. You know it’s happening, you swear you won’t let it happen, and it happens anyway. It’s so acceptably easy for a woman not to strive too hard, not to be too adventure-crazed, not to take too many risks, not to enjoy sex with full candor, not to undress with her eyes every man she meets, not to live in a state of rampant amazement each day because she can’t get over the shock of living—being here at all, in the midst of lichens and aromatic grasses and octopi and golden-shouldered parakeets. It isn’t seemly for a woman to have that much zest. Nice girls aren’t supposed to have an erotic relationship with the Universe. It’s so much easier just to accept the package that has been arranged ahead of time; it is waiting for your arrival.”

  In several of her books she laments, in a way, her difference. She acknowledges that it sets her apart: “Stray from the expected glide path,” she says, “and women will resent you, men will be intimidated by you, parents will be mystified, then disappointed, society will be afraid to let you live on its moral outskirts, and, worst of all, you will be your own saboteur.”

  Perhaps a man gifted with Diane Ackerman’s talents and energy and curiosity would feel more accepted by society. Not that she hasn’t been accepted; she has received numerous awards for her poetry and other writing. A Natural History of the Senses was a best seller. A reviewer in The Washington Post said, “Diane Ackerman is like no other writer I have ever encountered. She writes a swiftly moving and sensuous prose that is extremely accessible but also reflects the encyclopedic knowledge and attention to minutiae of a laboratory scientist." Still, her mixed feelings betray, as much as anything, a woman’s sensitivity to relationship. And that is part of what makes her so special.

  We humans have the ability to observe, to reach out, to explore our world. We also have the ability—sometimes the tendency—to pull back, to protect ourselves from real and imagined threats. This latter tendency, to be safe, costs many of us something extraordinarily valuable: the full experience of living. For most of my life, shyness has kept me from interacting with other people with the depth of intimacy I have longed for. Much, much more than the thrill of flying, I have yearned to be comfortable with people, to converse easily and express my feelings in person as I seem to be able to in my writing.

  I’ve never met Diane Ackerman. I’ve never heard her speak. In the few interviews with her that I’ve read, she seems poised and confident. Of course.

  It’s a little late for me to be looking for a role model. Perhaps that’s not what she is. Still, for sheer inspiration, I couldn’t think of a more satisfying example of someone who is fully alive.

 

July 3, 2006

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